A man’s best friend

A story I don’t often tell — because it’s dark, ugly and difficult to share — is a childhood of relentless trauma. Without getting into vivid detail, I compare it to a snow globe. Some of us were blessed with very little shaking growing up. Sadly, I wasn’t blessed that way. The snowglobe might be just a metaphor. Yet the shaking, the reverberation, and the suffering have been painfully and — at times — unbearably real. The way that translates into adulthood is likewise a story that is difficult and almost shameful to share. Saying, “I’m depressed” can often be stigmatized as “I’m weak.” Saying, “I have anxiety” can be stigmatized as “I don’t have it together.” But this isn’t some public posting trying to recalculate some of our hardwired thoughts about all that. I’ll spend the rest of my life in that fight. It’s to acknowledge that the suffering that I endured as a kid means my snow globe is still very much shaking. It probably always will be.

That’s where my four-year-old dog, Miles, comes in.

I wasn’t necessarily ready to adopt a dog when I was sent a photo of the cutest one on the planet last February. But the story I was told about Miles was that he was scared, lonely, and anxiety-ridden in a shelter. I thought about the snow globe. You’re damn right I knew what he was feeling. Sure, that’s how empathy works. And the deeper I think about it, I take in how some of life’s most spontaneous, definitive decisions are made with that type of empathy. That’s how Miles Thomas Gleeson became a part of my home.

Fast forward a year and Miles and I are best friends. I get it, I get it. “A dog is a man’s best friend” is a timeold story. But people, this 14-pound dog is a godsend worth writing about. So stop rolling your eyes about some sappy, cliché story — and breathe in the awesome tale of me and my puppy.

** Miles has crippling separation anxiety. Every time I leave, he cries and shivers. When I return, he has legitimate panic attacks that would be diagnosed in the DSM-5. And perfectly, it’s that part of Miles I love the most. We have anxiety because we care, because we love, because we cannot stand being without someone. And we panic when we’re overwhelmed with emotion. There’s nothing weak or wrong with that, but rather endearing. These are characteristics that I’ve grown to value and embrace as a 29-year-old. And Miles has an infectious way of helping me accept my own feelings that often mirror his.

** Miles is surprisingly athletic. He jumps almost 5 feet off the ground when I return home in his panic-laden excitement (you ain’t shit, Air Bud), he dances better than Justin Timberlake when he knows it’s dinner time. And he legit can jog up to 8 miles with me (at 8:30 pace) when it’s not too hot. Often on my runs with him, he’ll gallop ahead of me and the wind will blow his fur back — much to his enjoyment. He smiles like he’s never felt freer, but I also know that freedom is uniquely attached to a leash that I hold. It stirs up a piercing feeling of togetherness that unlocks my own freedom from sadness.

** I’ve integrated Miles into my Roscoe Village neighborhood — where other dogs are in abundance and he’s learned to become friends and tame it back on the territorial angst (my first week with Miles featured him trying to fight Pitbulls, cable guys and hipster streetwalkers). He’s become a favorite at the local grade school, where kids always pet him; it’s when his cuteness really shines. He also gets excited whenever he sees a baby carriage, a seemingly cute adage to his previous owners.

** Miles is a dope AF travel puppy with a perfectly chill demeanor for road trips. I drove him with me 20 hours on vacation to Yellowstone and Black Hills (shout out, dog-friendly Residence Inns). I took him even further all the way out to California on my old stomping grounds. When we travel, he either sits on my lap while I’m driving or relaxes in his doggy bed. I’ve never had a better travel companion (sorry pretend friends who I’m offending).

** One of my favorite experiences with Miles has been how he’s synced up with the important people in my life. He often stays with his Uncle Tony and Aunt Amy when I travel for work or visit Cali, jumping up with exuberance whenever he sees them. He also has become a favorite around my little brother, Micah, and his family. Acknowledging that Miles is always by my side, Micah tells me Miles is like my R2-D2 or BB-8 droid (Star Wars nerd reference yolo). Micah’s six-year-old brother, Trevor, and his teenage sister, Kaelyn, are particularly fond of Miles, too.

** On top of vacations to Cali and Wyoming, I often take Miles with me in regular-day activities. To select bars, coffee shops and restaurants (if they don’t allow his cuteness, they’re dead to me), to the bank, to therapy appointments, to my office during off hours. He even guest-starred at my Super Sweet 29th Birthday Party at my go-to dog dive bar.

Needless to say, a year has flown by. But from a fulfillment, emptiness-filling standpoint, it feels like Miles has always been a part of my life. I have a hard time imagining any other way.

And it does make me think back to childhood. My dog growing up, Maxi, died when I was 16. But from age 8 to his last days here on earth — those eight-plus years I had with him by my side —he temporarily stopped the snowglobe shaking. Or made the shaking subside, at least. Miles has that same healing effect now.

Miles’ best trait is that he’s intuitive to the aforementioned pain. When I get angry or suffer a post-traumatic episode, most humans who see that would react to what they see on the surface — and understandably be disturbed. Miles, though, feels beneath that surface rage and senses the pain that’s underneath it all. He immediately comforts me by putting his paw on my heart with a deeply concerned look on his face. The effect that has on me — when it often has felt like a monster’s inside erupting — is amazingly profound. It’s like God’s way of saying, “you won’t suffer this alone.”

When I was 25, as all the pain, rage, and sadness from tucked-down trauma began to surface, I had a hard time wrestling with the idea of being depressed. Because it went against a skill I had developed over the years — making it seem like, to others and even myself, that the snowglobe’s shaking didn’t hurt me. That I was strong enough to defeat any shaking on my own. That’s how I learned, how I was raised — to win some type of race. To beat it with anger or supposed strength. But life isn’t that black and white, as it is in sports. It took a while for me to see the other colors that really matter in this life…and to a true remedy to all the shaking: Faith.

Annie Lamott once said, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

Like Maxi growing up, Miles is the best friend flashlighting my heart through the remaining darkness, through all the remaining shaking.

He’s in my snowglobe now.

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